Thursday, June 30, 2011

CHRONOPHAGE and the art of writing a female protagonist

The Corpus Clock (aka Chronophage) in Cambridge, England

CHRONOPHAGE is the name of my new novel, to be completed at what I'm guessing is 85K - 90K words. Inshallah, the first draft will be done in a couple of weeks... Inshallah. This being the fourth novel I've written, it has by far been the most challenging, a complicated plotline coupled with a female protagonist has thrown me out of my element, but as I stitch up the plot threads, things are coming together (I believe).  I'd like to think this would be "character-driven hard sci-fi" which is a bit of an oxymoron, but I've worked hard to try to flesh out a believable main character, one that defies (and not defines, hopefully) the way females are typically portrayed in much of sci-fi/fantasy genre trope...

I see this a lot: men (and some women) love to see female characters act like men, they love to see slick leather-clad assassin types donned in mirror shades, their ability to kill only matched by their sexual prowess, promiscuous, unapologetic, and relenting. Give the masses what they want, you say? Many do, luckily, so I don't have to. Somehow this masquerades as a backdoor embrace of female empowerment, that comic book equality is bridged by merely xeroxing women into traditional male fiction archetypes (while adding a healthy dose of Frank Frazetta embellishment). Done to affect in the past (Molly Millions of William Gibson's NEUROMANCER captures this beautifully), I find it a bit too well tread, watered down, and boring. Their are many great exceptions to this rule, but to appease the coveted 15 y.o. to 35 y.o. male demographic, a lot of times you're stuck. 

Something borrowed: Molly Millions' much nicer successor, Trinity of The Matrix
When it comes to writing, I have issues with plausibility. I do write science-fiction, which by it's very definition extrapolates on plausibility, but when it comes to characters, if they're not truly believable, I have an immediate problem. So when attempting Zara (the female protagonist of CHRONOPHAGE) I tried hard to make her decision processes less 'man-like' and more ... what's the word... subtle? She is lost but not desperate, sexual but not seductive, driven but not cocky, emotional but not weak, decisive but not rash... she is a balance despite her monomaniac personality. So, now as I finish the last chapter (or two), I perform a thought experiment, where I substitute Zara for 'Zach' say and see if it mattered story-wise. My opinion is that it most definitely wouldn't work... luckily.

CHRONOPHAGE isn't proof tested by any stretch. I'm hoping my agent decides to submit it. It's going to take a lot of edition (more so than my past novel, I believe) to get it ready and it suffers from consistency issues

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Two rules for keeping friends...

I have two simple rules for keeping and maintaining solid friendships...

RULE #1: Don't ask friends to move, only accept their help if they offer, but leave them with a workable guilt-free excuse that day if they decide to back out at the last minute.

RULE #2: Don't ask friends for feedback on your novel. Only offer your novel up if a friend expresses interest, but once you hand it off to them, do not (try not) to ask them about it later.

An awesome midget painting next to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, way more interesting in my opinion

A novel is a time commitment. It's art in long form. Easy enough to head out to an art gallery and take in all the countless hours of sweat and tears that went into that art in a small span of time. Rose and I toured the Louvre in a break-neck 3 hours one night. I doubt we got as much out of it as those tourists camped out on nearby benches admiring each work for an half-hour or more. I'm not a visual artist after all, and I only have a cursory knowledge of art history. But still, opinions were formed, emotions evoked, curiosity piqued, etc... Basically its one thing to ask some one to "take a look at my painting!". There's really no chore in doing so. But when it comes to writing? A completely different story.

Dustin Hoffman, more awesome than your actor-friend

It's challenging to think of art with regard to time. But we're busy human beings and our time is tied up in the basics of survival (unfortunately): jobs, household duties, socializing, food procurement, etc... To make room for art (and especially unproven art) is a challenge. Believe me, you're much more likely to want to go check out Dustin Hoffman play Willy Lowman in the Broadway version of "Death of a Salesman" then you are to want to go check your friend's one-man play down at the corner repertorie theater. Sure, your friend's in it, you like your friend, and they worked really really hard on their act, but seriously... Dustin Hoffman's way more awesome than your friend will ever be acting-wise. But hey, your friend's play is only an hour or so, what's an hour out of your life?

An aside: Art, I believe, can be broken down into its time commitment as follows...
paintings/sculptures/photography < poetry/songs < ballet/plays/film < opera/symphony < long-form writing

Again, a different story when it comes to novels. To slog through a friends overwritten plot-holed 150K work opus is misery. And providing feedback? Even more miserable. "Yeah, your baby's ugly. Not sure why, it just is..." Most unpublished writers aren't that good, because they're unpublished. You'd much rather speed through a Clancy Rainbow Six novel than you would your friends nonsensical Star Wars pastiche.  As a writer, I think its important to admit that to yourself.

When you're offering your novel to friends, your burdening them in a way. They may actually be really interested in what you wrote, perhaps as a means to gain insight into your inner workings, a voyeuristic journey perhaps. But once they run up against some of your writing weaknesses, they lose steam. It's human nature. I've given my novel to countless friends, but only a few brave souls have ever told me months later, they read the entire thing. And to ask for honest criticism? Don't count on it. They don't want to hurt your feelings. But if they do offer up a few nuggets of advice, whatever you do, don't hold it against them. You borrowed eight+ hours of their life, to get angry at them because they "had some issues" with your book is selfish.

As a struggling writer, getting honest thoughtful and meaningful criticism is a terrible challenge. Take what you can get, I say. When you ask a friend "tell me what you really think", don't just say it, mean it. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Settings: Vancouver, Canada

Douglas Coupland, who named a book after Billy Idol's former punk band "Generation X" and became a spokesman for my generation, wrote an interesting coffee table book called "The City of Glass". It's a series of photo-essays that sheds a bit of light on Coupland's hometown. One point that he makes is that Vancouver is a 21st Century City, the oldest of the new cities, a paradigm unto itself.

Vancouver's canyons of glass
I've been travelling to Vancouver for visits my whole life and I've seen it change over the decades. Although, I've probably seen more of Vancouver on my television set as it is a stand in for "everywhere", it's played Caprica in Battlestar Galactica, and been the dreary backdrop for every the X-files episode up to Season 6 or 7 (don't remember when production switched to LA), and it's also been the non-setting for a ton of films over the years due to its thriving film industry. It represents everywhere and nowhere at the same time, which I think is a bit of a bummer, because Vancouver rarely plays its deserving self in the on-screen fictional universe.

Vancouver prior to the Cylon Invasion
The Vancouver I know, is something akin to a "New London", a hyper-accelerated cosmopolis where English as a language shares street-time equally with Hindi, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, and French. With this mixed and jumbled tech savvy culture, beholden to quick-fashion and alien pop-culture quirks, it brings to mind a pre-cyberpunk chic. And walking its streets, it's easy to understand why the godfather of cyberpunk himself, William Gibson, calls the city home.

the seminal classic
Physically, Vancouver is anything but a near future dystopia however. It's probably one of the more beautiful cities of the New World, a clash of forested mountains, water, and glass towers (called 'see-throughs' by the natives). And because of its geography and location, it is unlike any other North American city. There are no belts of freeway traffic circling the city, there's no copse of corporate skyskrapers at its center (despite its impressive skyline), and with its Asian influences, resembles more Hong Kong than it does Seattle. Despite it being a very new city, it lacks the cheap pre-fab disposable look of some American cities (I won't name names, but those cities know who they are). There's been a great deal of thought to its 'newness', a style that's uniquely its own.

the last remnant of old futuristic Vancouver, Expo '86 today 

Vancouver's contribution to history and culture has yet to be written, a Roman-era London, an outpost on a new frontier, the literal answer to what happens when West meets East. And for somebody that writes science fiction, I find it a fascinating/inspiring place to visit for its possibilities more so than its history.

So if you get the chance to visit, I highly recommend the Japadogs.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reading the Transhumanist Way!

The Arakawa house, not really that comfortable
Transhumanism is a poorly thought out philosophy that states that human beings, by altering their reality, can 'force' evolutionary change. It defies biology and is a bit of an offshoot from the crackpot 'immortality' movement. Immortality, of course, is scientifically ridiculous. The reason we dominate the world  as a species is because humans mutate and pass on the awesome genes, rewarding the Don Drapers and Ghenghis Khans of the world, while punishing and killing off the lame genes, like whatever gene predisposes you to play World of Warcraft and eat Doritos 12 hours a day. People have tried to work transhumanist ideas into architecture (e.g. the Arakawa house, depicted above) and art, but what I think they're really gunning for is the idea that in order to advance intellectually/genetically/etc..., one must embrace a challenging environment and one must try not to get too comfortable, a pretty obvious notion.

An experiment in transhumanist writing, or a literary practical joke, not sure which.
So, as a sluggish reader, I try to diversify my reading in such a way as to 'not get comfortable.' This, by itself can slow the reading down: new styles to get used to, a different cultural perspective, different eras, etc...A pretentious notion probably, but I'm by no means sitting around reading War and Peace, Gravity's Rainbow, or Ulysses. It's less painful than that.

I try to 'not get comfortable' by reading a different author every book and abstaining from reading series as much as I'm tempted. Although, I'm sometimes not able to stick to my guns (Gene Wolfe got me for five novels). With the shear volume of books and authors, this is a straightforward task. There's a ton of award winning Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors out there and at the rate I read, I will never exhaust my reading list. Basically, if one starts with Gollancz's SF Masterworks series, a reader could plow through 60+ amazing Sci-Fi novels and rarely encounter the same writer twice. And luckily, unlike TV or film, the quality you encounter content-wise is greater per product than any other media form (in my humble opinion).

Start Here
So, should reading be for pleasure or should it be work? It depends on your goals. I read sci-fi because I love the genre, and I'm also researching styles. Part pleasure. Part work. Occasionally, I stumble across books that I realize are important and influential, but that I simply don't care for (like listening to the band REM, I appreciate them, but don't enjoy their music). Most of the time, this isn't the case however. Some books are written with simple language but are outstandingly executed (George R Stewart's "The Earth Abides" comes to mind) and others are outstandingly written but poorly executed (Ian McDonald's "River of Gods", it's quite the mess'). Different books I enjoy for completely different reasons.

I wish I was a quicker reader but I'm not. (Rose tells me my lips sometimes move as I read . They don't, but whatever), This is my system and it seems to work for the most part, exposing me to as much different stuff as efficiently as possible.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Something borrowed... The World of Pandora

Not Pandora
As a kid, I used to stare at my father's album covers for hours. And back in the 70's/early 80's the era of progressive rock and arena rock was a watershed moment for album cover art. The albums were vinyl then and big! Not shrunken down to CD size. Now, most album covers have been reduced to thumbnails on iTunes, so what really is the point?. In fact, in the age of digital media, there are albums I'm fond of that I've never seen covers for. But those old LP covers, by no means 'high art', were wild and crazy and inspiring as a kid: spaceships, psychedelic planetscapes, and other assorted 'far out' stoner playgrounds of the mind. Master of this style of album art was a rock artist named Roger Dean whose YES and Asia album covers I fell in love with as a kid,

Roger Dean YES album art 
Now, when I watched Avatar like everyone else, there with my IMAX 3D goggles strapped to my head, I was truly blown away by the visuals. But after watching a few James Cameron's "king of the world" interviews, I realized he and his visual team were the undisputed "kings of Pandora". Unfortunately in all those exhausting DVD extra interviews (and maybe I missed it somewhere) there was no obligatory list of "influences" that brought Cameron to create Pandora.

I can get into the whole movie itself, and its whole "Dances with Wolves (in Space)" storyline, but I won't. There's been enough written about that. My beef with Avatar is the lack of credit Cameron bestowed upon the long history of visionary science fiction/fantasy pioneers that came before him. Personally, I enjoy  interviews where writers site their influences. It makes me want to climb up into the attic and dust off the H.P. Lovecrafts and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Because as I see it, nothing creative is truly original, it's always inspired, a gestalt of everything that's come before. I love knowing how somebody arrived at a certain creative point. A lot of times you'll be surprised that THAT came from THAT.

The Avatar Exhibit at Seattle's EMP
You won't find any bigger fan of Cameron. I loved the first two Terminator movies and Aliens is a classic, but to not acknowledge where this all came from leaves me, as a fan, frustrated. So when the EMP/SCI-FI museum opened it's "World of Pandora" exhibit I felt less than inspired to check it out, even though I'm a huge sci-fi fan and the museum's only five minutes away. If Cameron had just said, "oh man, I love those Roger Dean album covers, I was totally inspired." I'd have given him more credit.  Maybe he was worried he'd have to share some of the 2 Billion+ dollars he made off the flick. I enjoy when artists/directors/writers give little windows into the creative process. But having critics answer for you with nonsense about "pure genius" I find much more dull.

Avatar 2?
So, sadly, when I think of Avatar, I don't think about its groundbreaking visual effects (which really are truly astounding), I think of a bunch of Thundercats wandering a Roger Dean album cover acting out Pocahantas. Sometimes knowing where art came from is almost as important as the art itself. Otherwise it just seems borrowed pastiche...

The Navi (the way I see them)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Empty Chamber: Part 3 ... apathy, abandonment, time to move on

Damien fights off one of Grim's undead minions
I finished The EMPTY CHAMBER when I got back to Seattle and started working at Boeing. At the time, I'd made a stab at 'cleaning it up' but editing really wasn't my thing at the time. I wasn't really good at it, my sense of flow was off, comma usage was all over the place, and short/brief sentence structure was painful. As many beginning writers do, I was bogged down in colloquialisms, a rampant disdain for grammar in the thinly veiled guise of 'style', and way too many words with the pretension that nothing shall be cut!  Nothing, absolutely nothing could possibly be cut. Every sentence, every chapter seethes with too much wit and humor to possibly ax, right? Not satisfied with the end product, I wrote an epilogue to The EMPTY CHAMBER, piling on the word count even more until the beast soared to  125K.

Damien on the road and armed
In the end, it was a jumbled mess with far too many pop-culture references, vampires, werewolves, gorillas, demons, and wise cracking punks to clean up in to a consistent tale. That, and I think it failed message-wise and probably theme-wise. People I gave it to actually seemed to like it for the most part (at least they read the whole thing) but after a few failed queries to agents, I had to be honest with myself. This novel was flat-out unpublishable as it stood. I suppose, if I had passion for it, I could have hammered on it, slimmed it down, let the a critique group and their long knives strip it to the bone, but I didn't want to do that. I was restless.
Our hero encounters the obligatory werewolves
The EMPTY CHAMBER was an experiment. Like an empty basketball court at night, it was a place to practice up, get my chops down, experiment with a novel length fiction form, gauge how much stuff you actually have to think up plot/character/setting-wise to fill up a book's worth of words. And I think this is the hardest part for a writer, to abandon that first novel when its time is nigh.
Damien takes the plunges into the underworld
When this moment actually occurs varies. And if you truly believe your first novel is thee ONE, who am I to tell you to abandon it. By all means, if you have the passion to re-write, re-edit, shop it, mop it, overhaul it, then push on., go forth. My threshold was far less. Not that I didn't love The EMPTY CHAMBER, I most certainly did, in fact so much so, I actually illustrated each chapter (some of the art included in this post), but I really needed to move on as a writer.
Damien, sporting his 90's era tattoo, consults his soul agent on afterlife options
Some things did come out of it that I'm still quite proud of. The epilogue add-on, more or less a short story, provided a means to explore new terrain (I might actually post that to the blog at some point). My writing had improved quite a bit over the seven years.
Damien in a moment of repose with afterlife friends
And one idea I still rather enjoyed was the concept of a 'universal afterlife', a purgatory clearing house for souls where all of mankind's religions barter for the righteous (and the damned). The EMPTY CHAMBER's protagonist, Damien Faust (how's that for a name?), as apart of his redemption must head into purgatory and retrieve his soul from Grim with the help of his soul agent. An obvious theme going back to pretty much every modern myth and religion since time began, I'd managed to put my own bureaucratic existential spin on it, not new, just different. I liked the idea, so much so, I recently incorporated elements of it into a comic script for my college roommate (comic writing, a post for another time).

The EMPTY CHAMBER still sits on my hardrive, I pop it open from time-to-time with the good intention of one day rewriting it. But I doubt I will. Like nostalgia, it's fun to visit the past from time to time, but you can never really go home again.